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Polco News & Knowledge

3 Key Ingredients in Meaningful Community Engagement

meaningful community engagement

The article originally appeared on Funkhouser and Associates monthly newsletter. 

This article is a guest post by former mayor, author, and thought-leader Mark Funkhouser. He shares his thoughts as a panelist on Polco's NLC City Summit session. 

– By Mark Funkhouser –

In 1989, when I was the city auditor of Kansas City, my office began conducting regular citizen surveys via mail. Very few cities were engaging in this practice at the time, but my staff and I saw this approach as an opportunity to identify areas of disconnect — issues that residents rated as high in importance yet low in satisfaction as to how effectively the city was addressing them. The information we gleaned helped us focus our efforts and generate impactful audits, ultimately helping city departments learn, improve and be more responsive to residents’ needs.

I continued in this spirit when I became mayor of the city. A key pillar of my administration was “to make the city work for regular folks.” To that end, it was crucial to build connections and trust within the community.

Mark Funkhouser Meaningful Community EngagementWe blazed a new path. I hosted an unprecedented 116 town hall meetings. The face-to-face, honest and transparent interactions with residents went a long way toward humanizing city government and gave us an opportunity to explain the priorities, challenges and constraints we were facing. (One example: the combined sewer problem, which the city was under a federal court order to fix, and how it would have to be paid for with taxpayer money). This ongoing dialogue offered my office crucial insights into the lived experiences of our residents. 

Surveys and direct, in-person engagement go hand in hand: The former reflects what people think, while face-to-face conversation provides a better understanding of why those things matter. Building this level of mutual understanding requires resources and time, but it is key to making local government function effectively because as a result the outcomes we want are co-produced by government and residents working together.

Even with new technologies, including social networks and communications platforms, community engagement continues to be difficult for local governments to master. And yet it’s vital that we continue trying. The cities that are performing well are those that realize the value of community data as a crucial tool to identify pain points and then help direct limited resources in ways that are impactful and equitable.

Mayor Shannon Martin Meaningful Community EngagementInspired by a panel discussion with representatives from Polco, whose polling platform is widely used by local governments, and Shannon Martin, mayor of Port St. Lucie, Florida, at the recent National League of Cities’ City Summit, I’ve identified three key ingredients in meaningful community engagement.

1. People Should Feel That Their Voice Matters 

When local governments maintain an open dialogue with residents, people feel that government officials value their input into the policymaking process. 

Port St. Lucie consistently ranks among the top cities for resident survey response rates, and a big part of it is that folks feel heard, especially when it concerns policy goals. Maintaining this active and responsive relationship is no small feat, given that Port St. Lucie’s population has practically tripled over the last 20 years. But when city officials show a genuine interest in delivering services and addressing concerns, even the newest arrivals see that their input matters.

tobin mckearin Meaningful Community EngagementThe city has dedicated considerable resources to this process. With at least 15 full-time employees focused on city communications, the city can scale various engagement strategies to target populations. “Welcoming residents’ voices into these assessments,” explains Tobin McKearin, Polco’s vice president for data science, “provides opportunity to build public trust, increases community and social capital, and often leads to the best strategic decisions.” 

2. Community Engagement Must Be Comprehensive and Inclusive

It’s vital for residents to perceive that everyone’s voices and perspectives are heard.

Surveys such as those Polco has conducted nationwide for the past 30 years offer a useful starting point in helping local leaders gauge resident priorities and opinions. They tell us, for example, that with the economy a top concern for Americans, affordable housing, equitable taxation and community investment all present ways local policy decisions can ease cost burdens on their residents.

If Port St. Lucie had relied only on its traditional meeting format in obtaining feedback on its strategic plan, where the median age of attendees tended to be older than what is representative of the community, the city might not have gained a broader perspective on the needs of residents of all ages. With a median age of 41, the city worked to reengineer its public outreach to be more accessible.

Kate Parmelee, the city’s director of strategic initiatives and innovation, said this also led the city to adjust the hours of the citizens’ summits to accommodate younger families, since those parents may be unable to attend a meeting late on a weekday evening. Instead, the city held the citizen summit on a Saturday – and developed engagement activities for children to participate along with their parents.

2. Raw Data Must Be Translated Into Actionable Insights

Knowing how to act on the data is crucial in any strategic initiative or policy implementation process. 

Parmelee also noted that it took time for Port St. Lucie to learn how city leaders could best structure community feedback into results and to have clear direction and consensus on the outcome of the strategic plan from the City Council. The eventual outcome was a strict structure for implementation, with each strategic step having a project charter, a manager, an assigned team and structured metrics to measure outcomes. Concise evidence on what works and what doesn’t has helped Port St. Lucie deliver strong programs to its residents.

These insights and stories from Port St. Lucie and other communities that actively engage with their residents demonstrate the power and effectiveness of meaningful engagement when it’s baked into the process of local government. The key, though, is leading by listening. When residents feel as if they’re shouting into a vacuum, they’re less inclined to participate the next time. But when residents feel that they are engaged in an authentic, ongoing conversation with their city government, they become effective partners in co-creating a more inviting and more livable community.

Get the Tools You Need For Meaningful Community Engagement 

Polco's community engagement tools, from top-rated surveys to budget simulations and more, forge strong government-resident relationships and rebuild lost trust. With Polco, you get representative data that reflects your entire community. You also get comprehensive data that shows you where you can focus your strategies and improvements. See how it works! 

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